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Emerald Mound

Emerald Mound

Emerald Mound was erected by the Mississippian Culture Mound-Building Indians Circa A.D. 900-1000. It was named a Historic Site by the St. Clair County Historical Society in 1984.

Located approximately a mile and a quarter north-northeast of Lebanon, in the eastern half of a square mile bounded by Highway 4 and by township roads Midgley-Nies, Emerald Mound Grange and Emerald Mound School. The site of the mound is owned by the State of Illinois, and an easement exists which has not been developed. All roadways appearing to approach the mound are private drives to home sites. Except for authorized officials, there is no access to the mound closer than the surrounding paved roads.

Emerald Mound
Thousand-Year-Old Mound Near Lebanon, Illinois
Among Largest In The United States

May, 1963
By Harrison Leon Church
As printed in "Outdoor Illinois"

One THOUSAND YEARS have passed since Mississippian culture mound-building Indians set their temple on the Southern Illinois prairie. Now called Emerald Mound, this hill has survived almost intact and is second in size only to the Cahokia or Monk's Mound nearer the Mississippi River. Emerald Mound is thought to be a part of the Cahokia mound system, but its secrets still lie hidden under many tons of earth. Today, Emerald Mound may be reached by driving north of Lebanon on State 43 for, about two miles. If you watch closely and know what to look for, you may see the mound about a mile to the east. It is accessible by several county roads and private drives.

Bulldozers Threaten Mound
The Mississippian culture mound-building Indians have left us no alphabet, no carved stories on cave walls; but perhaps their ceremonial and burial grounds are as good a record of their life in their unrecorded prehistoric times. The Emerald Mound, together with several smaller surrounding mounds, is believed to have been built about 900 A.D. Archaeologically Emerald has been almost completely neglected. But now something must be done or its secrets of centuries before Columbus will be lost forever. Man-made monsters – the bulldozers-threaten to level the mound completely as contractors have an eye to using the dirt for fills, and the owner wants to farm the leveled acreage.

In an attempt to discover whether the mound was worthy of extensive excavation by State of Illinois archaeologists, Illinois' head curator of anthropology, Dr. Joseph Caldwell, and two State Museum archaeologists, Howard Winters and Stuart Struever, have spent a week digging in the central Emerald Mounds well as the others in the vicinity. They found enough to convince them to return for another session later on.

Large As City Block
Apparently the large Emerald Mound was designed as a ceremonial mound and not a burial mound as is often romantically supposed. To date, too slight work has been done to prove any theories, but findings have been on the order of ceremonial props. Emerald Mound, probably so named in later years for its grassy covering, covers an area of approximately two acres, almost a city block, and its flat top is approximately 150 feet square. The mound is surprisingly geometrically shaped in the form of a truncated pyramid. Each of its base lines measures nearly 300 feet, and it rises to within a few inches of 50 feet. The dirt was apparently carried from the surrounding territory and is calculated to comprise over 56,000 cubic yards. The mound is situated with its four corners directed at the four points of the compass, suggesting that its builders planned it to be some type of religious monument, perhaps to the sun or to a stationary or "north" star. The northwestern side is extended and forms a flat platform midway in height between the level of the surrounding land and the mound's top.

In 1840, the Owner of the land built a three-story house on the southeast side of the mound. The house was built so close to the mound as to necessitate the removal of a small portion of it. It is recorded that sixteen flint spades varying from ten to eighteen inches in length were uncovered in the process of leveling the area of the foundations of the house. The whereabouts or disposal of these are unknown today. The building still stands, but since a heavy rain a few years ago caused a landslide which caved in one wall of the house, it has been used as a chicken house. It has gone to ruin. Nonetheless, the house still gives the air of splendor it must have had when it was new and the largest house around. On the top floor is a bathtub some eight feet long and three feet deep. The three-story spiral staircase was the cause of death once, when a 12-year-old boy slid down the banister falling off at the bottom and cracking his skull. His tombstone is in the center of the apron on the opposite side of the mound.

Forty years after the house was built, a narrow trench was dug into the northwestern slope of the mound for an iron water pipe. Not one item of human fabrication was turned up this time; however, a few inches below the top of the mound, a bed of charcoal was found, indicating that a fire had been kept burning for a long period of time centuries ago. This fact coincides with the postulated ceremonial purpose of the mound.

Within several hundred yards of the main mound are a series of smaller mounds. Because of the size of the main mound, and because it was not in immediate danger of destruction, the state archaeologists have done most of their work on the smaller secondary mounds. They unearthed several interesting formations. "Hey, come here," called a trucker hauling away a mound by the truckload. He showed the archaeologists many irregularities he had uncovered in the surrounding earth. The museum officials set to work with trowel and paintbrush so as not to damage anything recognizable. Meticulous excavation revealed the exact shape of a ceremonial fire of centuries past. It was about three feet in diameter, and a foot and a half deep. The charcoal on top of the clay lining of the pit was visible, and the hearth was dug in the shape of a deep dish and not a gently sloping shallow plate.

Individual Skin Loads
Digging farther down the mound, the archaeologists cut a vertical wall which showed the various levels which had been added to the mound. Even visible were the individual skin loads of dirt—big ones deposited by adults and smaller ones carried there by children. The museum officials think that the layers were probably deposited at about fifty year intervals - possibly the life span of a certain chief. Imagine the ceremony of re-covering the mound when one chief or important tribal figure died. After appropriate prayers, the tribe hauled a layer of fresh dirt to cover their temple grounds. Many moons were required to accomplish this task, and tired Indians greeted its completion with somewhat worn-out joy. They then began life anew. Another theory of the purpose of these smaller mounds is that they were sites of the living quarters for the priests or rulers of the culture. Dr. Melvin L. Fowler, president of the Illinois Archaeological Survey, says of Emerald Mound, "... There is little doubt that Emerald can play a key role in reconstructing the early history of Illinois. Next to Monk's Mound at Cahokia, Emerald is the largest prehistoric earth-work in Illinois, and among the largest in the entire United States. Enough is known already to indicate that it was an important religious center in the days before Columbus . . . In short, the Emerald Mound is almost unique in this state, both for its size and significance, and for its state of preservation...

"The artifacts uncovered in the digging in these mounds lack the color and fascination sometimes associated with such Indian relics. But this in no way detracts from the significance of the findings. So far, no massive burials or buildings have been uncovered, and very few arrowheads have been found on the mounds, but the fire pits and levels of earth laid bare may reveal a great many things of the primitive culture which lived and built the mounds long before anyone thought of sailing west to get east. But we must work fast. Modern technology can wipe out in a single season what took the Indians centuries to build.



This view of Emerald Mound from the northwest shows the flat top
and platform apron lying directly before the mound. The grove
of trees at the right is growing on the southwestern slope.
Pigs are now pastured in the mound area.



Illinois State Museum archaeologists Howard D. Winters (front) and
Stuart Streuver painstakingly excavate one of many fire pits found in one
of the secondary mounds of the Emerald Mound group. In the pit
were found small turtle shells, charred bones, and fragments of pottery.

 

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